Automating ourselves out of life

So the last two weeks  I have been at one of the largest factories in Shenzhen producing an extremely popular product . This product belongs to a company that is beloved for its customers , not a simple Facebook  like , not a mere thumbs up but  passions that are hitherto unknown to the human race with regard to a mere thing. 20 years ago when I was a mere stripling of a programmer , I was part of a flame war where I was against the company but these days that same company provides me with bread and butter and the more I use it, the more I like it and I am beginning to understand the motivations of my friends whom I previously thought were uninformed . This company represents  creativity , freedom and other wonderful ideals that I would happily lay down my life for. In a way , it is representative of America itself , the freedom , the disdain for authority , the boldness to throw off shackles of traditions and define new path breaking ways of seeing the world . In my view all of that defines the American way of life . Most people imagine that the American way of life is a house with a 2 car garage and a dog . In my opinion the American way is having the freedom to choose your life and live it your way on your terms. It has taken me a long time to understand that , most of it was learnt in the school of hard knocks . Benjamin Franklin liked to say that “Experience is a hard teacher but fools will learn in no other ” , I will leave you , my learned reader to draw your own conclusions to my inability to learn anywhere but the school of experience

But I digress . The plant is a superb example of finely tuned engineering and automation principles. Henry Ford would be proud to see his brain child, the assembly line being adopted and improvised all over the world.  Microscopic electronic components are placed using special opto-magnetic screw drivers handled by lines and lines of semi skilled laborers probably procured from the deep interior of China. These laborers are the unsung heroes of my blog today .

Anybody who has been inside a factory tends to have their eyes glazed over at the monumental achievements of technology finely tuned to produce the products that we as a race tend to take for granted whether it is your car or your phone . The initial dazzle tends to fade off after a little while , for me it faded after a few days . Then I became aware of smells , various kinds of body odour which evoked memories from a bygone age . I had smelt that when I worked around people who worked in the factory , the smell is various body odours ; smelly feet , un-deodorized armpits and the familiar unpleasant smell of ammonia and uric acid . I imagine that some of the people are so poor that they have no money to spend on luxuries like deodorant . Ironically I used to smell that on my dad who was fanatical about general body hygiene. I did not notice that smell on him on Thursdays which was his day off and interestingly after he retired, I never smelt that on him . As amazing as that sounds , the only way that I can explain is that body odors follow the law of association, hang around a stinky person and thou shall stink as well.  So while it did evoke some familiar childhood memories , I was not enthusiastic about smelling any of it. As I walked around the lines and watched people engaged in monotonous laborious activity, I watched the expressions of people who took a few minutes break to look around and as they surveyed the stranger in their midst . I would imagine they had seen Indians before but they had an odd look about them  . Some days I would interpret that as envy, other days as curiosity and slowly I realized that I was guilty of charging all their expressions under one collective bucket and I started paying more attention to individuals , the expression most common seemed reminiscent of fear , I was not sure if it was a fear that I was about to automate some jobs away and deprive them of their livelihood or just a general fear of strange looking people. The prior fear was well justified considering that we had deployed technologies where we had replaced people with robots . The work is mindless and numbing , personally I would not want to ever do anything like it but I realize after talking to a girl who had just graduated from MIT that some of these people may not have choices . I am not sure what skills they have but technology and automation in its relentless progress has managed to render some if not all of those skills obsolete. It is a painful realization that ones cherished work can do away with the livelihood of people rather than add time to people’s lives . I have always been very proud of that , the fact that I literally add time to people’s lives . I had bought in on Thomas Jefferson’s vision where technology would help the human race relegate its tedious jobs to technology so that humans could spend their time enriching themselves . That was certainly my dream and cherished vision . But suddenly the bile of bitter truth comes surging up as I look at these faces and I wonder about what my dad would think about my vocation. I was 26 when he passed away but I never for the life of me figured out what he did .All I knew was that he had slaved in a factory for 30 some years in India and that is what he raised me and my sister on. I look at some of these faces again and they are intent on doing whatever it is that they are doing while the conveyor moves on and brings new assemblies to them to work on and one of the most common actions that I see is where they push the parts back . That is one common action to everybody working on a assembly line . Reminds me of time moving forward , slowly and inexorably while we vainly grasp at it as it slips through our fingers , time passing us by while we are marching with our heads down and struggling with whatever it is that sucks our attention . But in the midst of that , I watch somebody do a dance , not a fancy dance just a happy dance as he goes from one end of the line to the other rolling his empty cart and I smile happily . His happiness is contagious and remarkably as I smile broadly , several of the individuals on the line catch me smiling and smile back to me. The conveyor keeps moving on inexorably bringing more assemblies to be worked on and while I have no idea how many assemblies we would have put out today , I will never forget the happy dance of my nameless co-worker . It still brings a smile to my face . The conveyor of life moves on just as inexorably if not more so but we do have time to smile at our fellow passengers and brighten their day as that young Chinese boy did to me.


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